After years of directing music videos, Michael Bay made his filmmaking debut with Bad Boys. From the moment he debuted, he's come to define a kind of blockbuster film—loud, aggressively over-the-top, often visually sexualized. Before the superhero film backlash, his were the movies that people wrung their hands about ruining cinema.
Then, he fell into a black hole known as Transformers, and for the next decade, the Saturday morning cartoon turned visually cacophonous franchise defined his filmography. His deviations from it were either truly surprising (Pain and Gain) or deeply disappointing (13 Hours).
With the release of Ambulance earlier this month, it finally feels like the director has returned to his groove. Whether or not you enjoy his groove is another matter entirely. Still, he remains a fascinating filmmaker, and it is well worth a deep dive into his filmography. So, without further ado, here is the definitive ranked list of his films.
Unranked: Bad Boys for Life, Bumblebee, and Songbird
Michael Bay, in addition to being a director, is a very active producer with 35 current film producer credits of some kind to his name, including several in The Purge series, both A Quiet Place films, and a multitude of horror reboots like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th.
Of all the producer credits, Bad Boys for Life, Bumblebee, and Songbird feel the most like extensions of the Bay brand. This is either because they're sequels to series he began or most closely reflect some of his other films' political worldviews.
Songbird is obviously the latter. It is a tale of the near future in which we are several more COVIDs deep. America is on a near-constant lockdown. The sanitation department runs an authoritarian system of random virus tests. It is a profoundly cynical and politically misguided affair that lacks even a shred of the personality of Bay's bleakest efforts. Adam Mason does a decent job mimicking Bay's filmmaking, but it can't animate this unpleasant work. Easily the worst of the three.
Bad Boys For Life feels like it has staked out the middle ground between Bad Boys' ”reasonable” bombast and Bad Boys II's increased scale and stakes. It has more on its mind than either of those films, with nods towards the recursive nature of violence, giving and receiving forgiveness, how to stay connected as you age, and more. It's still a Bad Boys film, though, so all that gets chucked in the protracted violent ballet of bullets that is the film's climax. Still better than it needed to be by a considerable margin.
Bumblebee is the clear winner of the three. Brighter and lighter than any entry since the first Transformers, it is also more intelligent than all of them. By ditching the endless twisting grey metal aesthetics of the Decepticons in the other films, the action also improves. It's not that director Travis Knight gives better Bayhem than Bay. It's just that the action reads so much easier when you can pick up color amongst the chaos.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
The weakest script of any of the Transformers films, and that is really saying something. Apparently, the writers' strike of 2007-2008 affected the screenplay. If that's accurate, well, it certainly goes some way toward explaining this effort.
What it can't explain away is the decision to make two robot characters aggressive racial stereotypes or immature joke that simply refuses to die. Some praise this film's use of up-converted 3D during the action sequences. However, with so much other ugliness on screen and in the dialogue, the action can't come close to righting this ship.
Bad Boys II
Speaking of ugliness, I give you Bad Boys II. This is a film so aggressively unpleasant that a scene in which characters toss dead bodies out the back of a morgue truck into oncoming traffic is not in the top three most disagreeable events this movie “treats” viewers to witness.
Everything about Bad Boys II is bigger and louder. Unfortunately, none of that makes it a better or more enjoyable experience. By the time Detectives Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) are leveling slum housing with their giant offroad vehicle, you will likely have a headache from the amount of unapologetic awful you've endeared. The sensory overload certainly won't have helped matters either.
It takes hard work to obliterate both Smith's charisma and the chemistry between him and Lawrence. However, this film does not shy away from putting in the maximum effort in this one way. Unfunny almost to the point of hateful.
This film coming in at 13 isn't an intentional gag, but you should take joy where you can when it comes to this one. An apparent depiction of the Benghazi attacks of 2012 that left four Americans dead, including US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, and three more injured, 13 Hours is probably the most grueling entry in Bay's filmography. At two hours and 24 minutes, the pace is numbing. To his credit, Bay seems to take the events of that September very seriously. However, as a result, the film is devoid of even modest attempts at humor or lightness.
Benghazi has become something of a shibboleth in conservative circles, an event that's somehow indicative of all the failings of President Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Democrats in power in general. That's not really the issue here. Bay may be conservative, and certainly, some other films suggest that. However, 13 Hours is a largely politics-free affair. Or at least it strikes this admittedly liberal guy that way.
In place of conservative or liberal politics, we get Bay's ever-increasing distrust and distaste for institutions and groups of decision-makers. A big fan of uniformed actors (soldiers, police) in his earlier films, he had always shown a knee-jerk skepticism of those in authority over such on-the-ground workers. Here, however, he seems to be rejecting many of the uniformed people as well. As a result, the message has shrunk from “Authority is bad, but the people on the ground are good” to “Actually, only this select handful of people on the ground are good.”
As a result, the film feels both deeply jingoistic for and deeply critical of America. It's a mess of cynicism vaguely masquerading as patriotism. He's made worse films, but this is probably his most difficult to sit through.
Transformers: Age of Extinction
We'll get to Bay's sexualization of Megan Fox soon enough. Still, as in your face, as that was in Transformers, it can't quite compare to what Age of Extinction does to Nicola Peltz Beckham as Tessa, daughter of our inventor-hero Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg).
Fox's Mikaela Banes is a high school senior making her either 17 or 18 in the first Transformers, but her character exists in the weird liminal space a lot of teen movies go to where they are portraying stories of high schoolers but do everything else in their power to portray them as adults. For reasons known only to screenwriter Ehren Kruger and, presumably, Bay, Extinction decides not just to sexualize Tessa but also to remind audiences on multiple occasions that she is underage. Then, for good measure, they give her an adult love interest Shane (Jack Reynor), who carries around a laminated copy of Texas's age of consent laws because this is a totally normal and not at all distressing thing people do.
Extinction is further dragged down by copious product placement and a blatant attempt to court Chinese approval and, thus, the Chinese audience's money. If you thought, say, Iron Man 3's alternate scene that showcased a famous Chinese actor for the international cut was a bit cringe, well, this film makes that scene blush in vicarious embarrassment.
It is fun to see Stanley Tucci scurry about dodging laser blasts for a bit, though. So that's something.
Michael Bay gets totally over his skis in this one. Pearl Harbor is, simply put, not the kind of film Bay should've made or should ever make again. It's not offensive like some of the other movies on this list. It is often pleasant to look at, shot with a honeyed “magic hour” glow for long stretches. There are no problematic politics save for a bit of the classic us vs. them in war mentality.
It's just such a lousy merger of style, sensibility, and plot. Bay, working from a Randall Wallace script, can't make us care about the interpersonal dynamics of the story. At its heart, Harbor is supposed to be the story of a love triangle between two pilots—played by Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett—and a nurse—Kate Beckinsale—unfolding before, during, and after one of America's greatest tragedies. In practice, all that stuff is just marking time before the bombs start dropping.
There are three objectively attractive people, and the film can't generate any kind of heat or sense of passion from any combination of the three of them. Armageddon frequently gets dragged for the Affleck-Liv Tyler animal cracker scene, but at least those had a strange cockeyed sort of chemistry. These three can only manage to look pretty near or next to each other.
Without the central conceit of Harbor working, the rest of the film feels like a somewhat paint-by-numbers reenactment. Cuba Gooding Jr. has a memorable turn as a cook who heroically operates the guns when the Japanese bombing starts, but everyone else gets lost in the shuffle.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Bay's third Transformers film is a pretty forgettable affair. It manages a few strong action sequences, but that's about it. The humans, including the series' first protagonist Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf), seem especially an afterthought in this one.
While certainly better than the second installment, Revenge of the Fallen, Dark is the first installment where viewers realized Bay sinking his (dubious to some) skills into this project was unsuitable for his work and not going to make anything especially good.
Another step in Bay's political evolution; this one goes full out “Humanity is bad, select humans are good.”
The bigger problem, though, is this may be the first time Bay starts to feel old. Not the director himself, who, by all reports, remains quite spry. As a filmmaker, though, the work here feels like someone trying to catch up to the cool kids. The action is out of step with current trends and often weightless. Bay's sense of visceral thrill is nearly entirely absent. It's as though you can feel him rushing to play catch-up when his work used to define the style of the moment.
The script isn't helpful, either. It has a bit of a “the writers at SNL know they have a talented host this week, so they're going take it easy” feel to it. They know Ryan Reynolds, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Dave Franco are funny and charismatic, so they just have to write a vague structure to let them be funny and charismatic to the audience and each other. It isn't that the actors can't do it, but you can feel the material letting them down.
Transformers: Last Knight
Another largely forgettable sequel, this one from the Wahlberg side of the franchise. This one gets here almost entirely on the back of Sir Anthony Hopkins' performance, which is both fun and feels like Hopkins had fun doing it.
Also, its insertion of the Robots in Disguise into various historical events is done so slapdash that it ends up unintentionally funny. If you ever wondered what the Decepticons were up to in World War II, Last Knight's got you.
Pain and Gain
In some ways, Bay's most ambitious and artistic effort. It tells the story of three less-than-bright gym rats in Florida, played by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie. High on self-help mantras, gym inspiro, and the American Dream, the trio strikes on a get-rich-quick scheme that goes quickly and spectacularly awry.
There's a lot to like here, including Wahlberg and Johnson arguably turning in some of their most interesting post-2010 work. It especially feels like the last gasp of “Dwayne Johnson, serious actor,” as opposed to the “Dwayne Johnson, only charisma” version we have currently. Memorable turns by the likes of Tony Shalhoub and Ed Harris make for a strong ensemble.
But there's something that doesn't quite work. As the story builds and becomes more chaotic, you can feel it slipping away from Bay. With action, he's usually very good at making sure you can track it through the chaos. In Pain and Gain, however, the chaos is more person-driven. Bay can't quite wrangle that sort of thing as assuredly as he can special effects or explosions.
The passage of time has been kind to this one. What once felt cluttered, overly silly, intensely bombastic, and too long feels almost comforting now. Armageddon so infiltrated the pop culture landscape of the late 90s that it can't help but trip anyone who lived through its nostalgia wires. At the time, that ubiquity felt unpleasant and overwhelming. Yet, nearly 25 years later, it has a certain comfort.
Objectively speaking, it is still too loud, long, and dumb. But it is our loud, long, and dumb film.
The first Transformers has plenty of problems. For instance, the camera's leering “caress” of Megan Fox is still shockingly excessive more than 15 years later. The way viewers are “invited” to join in the unapologetic sexualizing of her is a lot. Bay's music videos feel like portraits of restraint in comparison.
The choice to make the Decepticons almost uniformly gray is also ill-advised. To a certain extent, it robs Bay of one of his best tools. His action scenes are still well-choreographed and massive here, but the all-gray bad guys make it very difficult to grasp the fights' use of space. The sound of their transformation is also just a deeply unpleasant choice.
Still, LaBeouf makes Sam a likable protagonist, several of the jokes hit, and there is something still something undeniably impressive about how well-realized the giant robots are on-screen. Whatever the faults of the Decepticons' designs, neither they nor the Autobots fall into the uncanny valley. Instead, they seem to have heft and occupy real space next to the human characters.
Arguably Bay's first flop—or at least underperformer—The Island concerns a future where people can clone bodies to act as organ farms for them, should some tragedy befall them. The clones, however, are under the impression that a place, the titular Island, awaits them as a future reward. So when clones go away for surgery and death, those left behind think their brother or sister is off to a sunny vacation spot. It's either a metaphor for religion's use of the promise of eternal life to promote obedience or like that thing parents do when they tell the kids their pets are now living on a farm upstate to forestall difficult conversations.
Unfortunately for the cloners, Jordan Two Delta (Scarlett Johansson) and Lincoln Six Echo (Ewan McGregor) figure out the truth and run from the compound where they spent their entire lives. Their goal is to seek their originals and convince them that cloning is wrong, and they need to reveal it to the public. Unfortunately, things do not go as planned.
Why this one is the film that broke Bay's streak remains a bit of a mystery to me. What people like in Bay films seems to be in heavy supply here. Additionally, it is arguably one of his more humane narratives, with McGregor and Johannsson both acquitting themselves well in dual roles. Consensus be damned, The Island is pretty good, actually.
Perhaps this is recency bias talking, but here is Bay's newest picture, Ambulance. After 6 Underground's mix of worrying cynicism and out-of-step with the zeitgeist action, this is a welcome return to form for Bay.
First, he doesn't seem to be huffing and puffing to keep up with the younger set this time out. The action feels as assured as ever. His use of drones is as aggressive and balletic as the camera moves in his early films. It is an excellent merger of the director's style with the newest tech. Some will find it dizzying, but if you appreciate Bayhem, it feels more like coming home…to find all new fixtures and appliances.
It is also a return to star cinema that defined Bad Boys and The Rock. Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Eiza González all deliver performances that don't get swallowed up by the action. Interestingly two of the three do it without going over the top. On the other hand, Gyllenhaal chews the scenery with abandon, and it's pretty great. He rings laughs out of relatively benign lines with bonkers commitment.
It is also a return to Bay's more…sunny political perspective. Granted, there's still plenty not great about his love of people in uniform. However, the sense that the people charged with law enforcement or military action in this country are primarily competent is a nice break from the bleak unfocused anger of, say, 13 Hours. He even returns to The Rock-era themes by criticizing how the government abandons enlisted men and women when they no longer carry a gun on foreign soil.
Michael Bay's first cinematic effort sees him arrive, for better and worse, nearly fully formed. His tricks, obsessions, shortcomings, and style are all aggressively on display in Bad Boys.
Interestingly, despite the spinning camera and sweeping widescreen action, Bay mostly just lets Will Smith and Martin Lawrence (and Tea Leoni to a much smaller extent) take control of the film. It's a showcase of two fairly young stars on the rise, both transitioning from television in the splashiest way possible.
Some of the more unsavory aspects of Bay-ism are here, especially when it comes to how the camera interacts with women's bodies. However, the whole film feels a bit sleazy. As a result, it feels more apiece with the environment, more like what you'd expect of the life of lothario cop Mike Lowrey (Smith) or the criminal environment. Unlike, say, Transformers, which is a PG-13 movie that feels WAY more exploitative of a woman's body.
The film that introduced us to action Nic Cage is far and away from the best offering in Bay's catalog. Is it perfect? No. But it might just be an ideal example of the form.
It is a wonderful merger of Bay's penchant for showcasing star power and charisma, making Sean Connery's still effortless purring charm and Cage's jittery “I'm a nerd trying to pretend I'm an action star” performance pop off the screen. In addition, it features Bay's weird skill in bringing in longtime character actors like John Spencer and Philip Baker Hall and giving them a couple of great lines in one memorable scene. He even gets nuanced villains in Ed Harris and David Morse, paired with two-dimensional delights authored by the likes of Tony Todd.
The maximalism is delightful as well. Everything is too big by half, whether it is a car chase through San Francisco marked by every possible impediment or an operatic shoot-out in Alcatraz's showers. It's aggressive, it's ridiculous, and it's pitched at precisely the right frequency.